History of Tattoos
Tattooing has long been a way of ceremonial rites and passages in most cultures throughout the world. From Africa’s scarification process to the Celt’s inking griffins and monsters that were later found on their corpses, tattoos are worn to mark special events, to pay honor or respect, and even to unite body to body with ash remains that are later inked under the skin.
Tattoos tell a story and can be written in any language. From symbols depicting cultural images to words and font designs, if you dare to dream it, a tattooist can likely create it and tell your tale on a living canvas.
To celebrate life, choices, and to pay tribute and memorial to life’s purpose and companions, tattoos have the artful ability to speak volumes. Many people choose to remember those they love and honor traditions and life events with a tattoo. As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words.
How Much Do They Cost?
Tattoos cost money. Just as you expect to pay a professional for beauty, hair and other professional services, tattoo artists set their own rates and expect to be paid fairly based upon the details of the design, and their professional skill level. The better and more well known the artist is, the more you will likely pay. Rest assured; all artists will discuss their rates prior to beginning work, or at least they should. If not, get out of there.
Things to Consider
Before you get a tattoo, proper time and consideration should be put into your piece to better avoid the chance of regret. Hasty tattoos are at the top of the list for tattoo removal, so don’t be so quick to jump the gun. Spend some time going over tattoo art styles to narrow down your personal style. With study, you will find that you are drawn to different styles as you begin to pay attention to body art.
Tattoo artist selection is also imperative in the tattoo process. Take your time and do some research on top tattoo artists. Watch a few of the latest tattoo reality shows to learn basic styles and techniques, and then develop an eye for the art.
Take your artistic eye to a more personal level by studying the works of modern artists and painters. Explore literature and mythology and begin to relate sentimental things that may apply to you into design interpretations. This is the fun part but, by all means, it can be a lifelong process. Take your time. Your body deserves the best answer to the question, “What is a tattoo?
It’s something that becomes part of you.
The word tattoo, or tattoo in the 18th century, is a loanword from the Samoan word tatau, meaning “to strike”. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology of tattoo as “In 18th c. tattaow, tattow. From Polynesian (Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, etc.) tatau. In Marquesan, tatu.” Before the importation of the Polynesian word, the practice of tattooing had been described in the West as painting, scarring or staining.
The etymology of the body modification term is not to be confused with the origins of the word for the military drumbeat or performance — see military tattoo. In this case, the English word tattoo is derived from the Dutch word taptoe.
Copyrighted tattoo designs that are mass-produced and sent to tattoo artists are known as “flash“, a notable instance of industrial design. Flash sheets are prominently displayed in many tattoo parlors for the purpose of providing both inspiration and ready-made tattoo images to customers.
The Japanese word irezumi means “insertion of ink” and can mean tattoos using tebori, the traditional Japanese hand method, a Western-style machine or any method of tattooing using insertion of ink. The most common word used for traditional Japanese tattoo designs is horimono. Japanese may use the word tattoo to mean non-Japanese styles of tattooing.
British anthropologist Ling Roth in 1900 described four methods of skin marking and suggested they be differentiated under the names “tatu”, “moko“, “cicatrix” and “keloid“. The first is by pricking that leaves the skin smooth, as found in places including the Pacific Islands, the second a tattoo combined with chiselling to leave furrows in the skin, as found in places including New Zealand, the third is scarification using a knife or chisel, as found in places including West Africa, and the fourth is scarification by irritating and re-opening a preexisting wound, rescarification, to form a raised scar, as found in places including Tasmania, Australia, Melanesia, and Central Africa.”Impicit in the classification was an evolutionary development from the most primitive form of body modification [the last] to the most sophisticated [the first].”
The American Academy of Dermatology distinguishes five types of tattoos: traumatic tattoos, also called “natural tattoos”, that result from injuries, especially asphalt from road injuries or pencil lead; amateur tattoos; professional tattoos, both via traditional methods and modern tattoo machines; cosmetic tattoos, also known as “permanent makeup“; and medical tattoos.
A traumatic tattoo occurs when a substance such as asphalt or gunpowder is rubbed into a wound as the result of some kind of accident or trauma. Coal miners could develop characteristic tattoos owing to coal dust getting into wounds. These are particularly difficult to remove as they tend to be spread across several layers of skin, and scarring or permanent discoloration is almost unavoidable depending on the location. An amalgam tattoo is when amalgam particles are implanted in to the soft tissues of the mouth, usually the gums, during dental filling placement or removal. Another example of such accidental tattoos is the result of a deliberate or accidental stabbing with a pencil or pen, leaving graphite or ink beneath the skin.
Tattooing among women of the Koita people of Papua New Guinea traditionally began at age five and was added to each year, with the V-shaped tattoo on the chest indicating that she had reached marriageable age. Photo taken in 1912.
Many tattoos serve as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, amulets and talismans, protection, and as punishment, like the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. Tattoos may show how a person feels about a relative (commonly mother/father or daughter/son) or about an unrelated person. Today, people choose to be tattooed for artistic, cosmetic, sentimental/memorial, religious, and magical reasons, and to symbolize their belonging to or identification with particular groups, including criminal gangs (see criminal tattoos) or a particular ethnic group or law-abiding subculture. Popular texts include the Biblical verses John 3:16, Philippians 4:13, and Psalm 23.
Extensive decorative tattooing is common among members of traditional freak shows and by performance artists who follow in their tradition.
An identification tattoo on a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp
People throughout history have also been forcibly tattooed for means of identification.
A well-known example is the Nazi practice of forcibly tattooing concentration camp inmates with identification numbers during the Holocaust as part of the Nazis’ identification system, beginning in fall 1941. The SS introduced the practice at Auschwitz concentration camp in order to identify the bodies of registered prisoners in the concentration camps. During registration, guards would pierce the outlines of the serial-number digits onto the prisoners’ arms. Of the Nazi concentration camps, only Auschwitz put tattoos on inmates. The tattoo was the prisoner’s camp number, sometimes with a special symbol added: some Jews had a triangle, and Romani had the letter “Z” (from German Zigeuner for “Gypsy”). In May 1944, Jewish men received the letters “A” or “B” to indicate a particular series of numbers.
Tattoos have also been used for identification in other ways. As early as the Zhou, Chinese authorities would employ facial tattoos as a punishment for certain crimes or to mark prisoners or slaves. During the Roman Empire, gladiators and slaves were tattooed: exported slaves were tattooed with the words “tax paid”, and it was a common practice to tattoo “fugitive” (denoted by the letters “FUG”) on the foreheads of runaway slaves. Owing to the Biblical strictures against the practice, Emperor Constantine I banned tattooing the face around AD 330, and the Second Council of Nicaea banned all body markings as a pagan practice in AD 787.
In the period of early contact between the Māori and Europeans, the Māori people hunted and decapitated each other for their moko tattoos, which they traded for European items including axes and firearms. Moko tattoos were facial designs worn to indicate lineage, social position, and status within the tribe. The tattoo art was a sacred marker of identity among the Māori and also referred to as a vehicle for storing one’s tapu, or spiritual being, in the afterlife. Tattoo marking a deserter from the British Army; skin removed post-mortem
Tattoos are sometimes used by forensic pathologists to help them identify burned, putrefied, or mutilated bodies. As tattoo pigment lies encapsulated deep in the skin, tattoos are not easily destroyed even when the skin is burned.
Tattoos are also placed on animals, though rarely for decorative reasons. Pets, show animals, thoroughbred horses, and livestock are sometimes tattooed with identification and other marks. Tattooing with a ‘slap mark’ on the shoulder or on the ear is the standard identification method in commercial pig farming. Branding is used for similar reasons and is often performed without anesthesia, but is different from tattooing as no ink or dye is inserted during the process, the mark instead being caused by permanent scarring of the skin. Pet dogs and cats are sometimes tattooed with a serial number (usually in the ear, or on the inner thigh) via which their owners can be identified. However, the use of a microchip has become an increasingly popular choice and since 2016 is a legal requirement for all 8.5 million pet dogs in the UK. Tattooed lip makeup
Main article: Permanent makeup
Permanent makeup is the use of tattoos to enhance eyebrows, lips (liner and/or lipstick), eyes (liner), and even moles, usually with natural colors, as the designs are intended to resemble makeup.
A growing trend in the US and UK is to place artistic tattoos over the surgical scars of a mastectomy. “More women are choosing not to reconstruct after a mastectomy and tattoo over the scar tissue instead… The mastectomy tattoo will become just another option for post cancer patients and a truly personal way of regaining control over post cancer bodies…” However, the tattooing of nipples on reconstructed breasts remains in high demand.
Functional tattoos are used primarily for a purpose other than aesthetics. One such use is to tattoo Alzheimer patients with their names, so they may be easily identified if they go missing.
Medical tattoos are used to ensure instruments are properly located for repeated application of radiotherapy and for the areola in some forms of breast reconstruction. Tattooing has also been used to convey medical information about the wearer (e.g., blood group, medical condition, etc.). Additionally, tattoos are used in skin tones to cover vitiligo, a skin pigmentation disorder.
SS blood group tattoos (German: Blutgruppentätowierung) were worn by members of the Waffen-SS in Nazi Germany during World War II to identify the individual’s blood type. After the war, the tattoo was taken to be prima facie, if not perfect, evidence of being part of the Waffen-SS, leading to potential arrest and prosecution. This led a number of ex-Waffen-SS to shoot themselves through the arm with a gun, removing the tattoo and leaving scars like the ones resulting from pox inoculation, making the removal less obvious.
Tattoos were probably also used in ancient medicine as part of the treatment of the patient. In 1898, Daniel Fouquet, a medical doctor, wrote an article on “medical tattooing” practices in Ancient Egypt, in which he describes the tattooed markings on the female mummies found at the Deir el-Bahari site. He speculated that the tattoos and other scarifications observed on the bodies may have served a medicinal or therapeutic purpose: “The examination of these scars, some white, others blue, leaves in no doubt that they are not, in essence, ornament, but an established treatment for a condition of the pelvis, very probably chronic pelvic peritonitis.”
Main article: History of tattooingSamoanpe’a, traditional male tattoosWhang-od, the last mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooist) of the Kalinga in the Philippines, performing a traditional batek tattoo.
Preserved tattoos on ancient mummified human remains reveal that tattooing has been practiced throughout the world for many centuries. In 2015, scientific re-assessment of the age of the two oldest known tattooed mummies identified Ötzi as the oldest example then known. This body, with 61 tattoos, was found embedded in glacial ice in the Alps, and was dated to 3250 BCE. In 2018, the oldest figurative tattoos in the world were discovered on two mummies from Egypt which are dated between 3351 and 3017 BCE.
Ancient tattooing was most widely practiced among the Austronesian people. It was one of the early technologies developed by the Proto-Austronesians in Taiwan and coastal South China prior to at least 1500 BCE, before the Austronesian expansion into the islands of the Indo-Pacific. It may have originally been associated with headhunting. Tattooing traditions, including facial tattooing, can be found among all Austronesian subgroups, including Taiwanese Aborigines, Islander Southeast Asians, Micronesians, Polynesians, and the Malagasy people. Austronesians used the characteristic hafted skin-puncturing technique, using a small mallet and a piercing implement made from Citrus thorns, fish bone, bone, and oyster shells.
Ancient tattooing traditions have also been documented among Papuans and Melanesians, with their use of distinctive obsidian skin piercers. Some archeological sites with these implements are associated with the Austronesian migration into Papua New Guinea and Melanesia. But other sites are older than the Austronesian expansion, being dated to around 1650 to 2000 BCE, suggesting that there was a preexisting tattooing tradition in the region.
Among other ethnolinguistic groups, tattooing was also practiced among the Ainu people of Japan; some Austroasians of Indochina; Berber women of Tamazgha (North Africa); the Yoruba, Fulani and Hausa people of Nigeria; Native Americans of the Pre-Columbian Americas; and Picts of Iron Age Britain.
In 1565, French sailors abducted from Canada an Inuit woman with facial tattoos and her daughter. They put them on public display in Antwerp, the Netherlands, drawing crowds for money. Sir Martin Frobisher, an English privateer, also abducted an Inuit man from Baffin Island, putting him on display in London before he died from European diseases. Frobisher returned to Baffin Island and abducted a man, a woman, and a child, also taking them back to London for public display. They also died from illness shortly afterwards. Giolo (real name Jeoly) of Miangas, who became a slave in Mindanao, and bought by William Dampier together with Jeoly’s mother, who died at sea. Jeoly was exhibited in London in 1691 for money as a one-man human zoo, until he died of smallpox three months later.
Perhaps the most famous tattooed “curiosity” in Europe prior to the voyages of Captain Cook, was the “Painted Prince” – a slave named “Jeoly” from Mindanao, Philippines. He was initially bought with his mother (who died shortly afterwards) from a slave trader in Miangas Island in 1690 by the English explorer William Dampier. Dampier described Jeoly’s intricate tattoos in his journals:
He was painted all down the Breast, between his Shoulders behind; on his Thighs (mostly) before; and the Form of several broad Rings, or Bracelets around his Arms and Legs. I cannot liken the Drawings to any Figure of Animals, or the like; but they were very curious, full of great variety of Lines, Flourishes, Chequered-Work, &c. keeping a very graceful Proportion, and appearing very artificial, even to Wonder, especially that upon and between his Shoulder-blades […] I understood that the Painting was done in the same manner, as the Jerusalem Cross is made in Mens Arms, by pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment.— William Dampier, A New Voyage Around the World (1697)
Jeoly told Dampier that he was the son of a rajah in Mindanao, and told him that gold (bullawan) abounded in his island. These were likely embellishments told by Jeoly in an effort to convince Dampier to free him. He also mentions that the men and women of Mindanao were also tattooed similarly, and that his tattoos were done by one of his five wives. He is believed to be a Visayan pintado, if he indeed came from Mindanao. Other authors have also identified him as Palauan due to the pattern of his tattoos and his account that he was tattooed by women (Visayan tattooists were male from the few surviving records; while Palauan tattooists were female), although this would conflict with his own admission that he originally came from Mindanao.
Dampier brought Jeoly with him to London, intending him to be a puppet prince for the British venture into the Spice Islands. He promised Jeoly that he would be paid well and allowed to return home. He invented a fictional backstory for him, renaming him “Prince Giolo” and claiming that he was the son and heir of the “King of Gilolo.” Instead of being from Mindanao, Dampier now claimed that he was only shipwrecked in Mindanao with his mother and sister, whereupon he was captured and sold to slavery. Dampier also claimed that Jeoly’s tattoos were created from an “herbal paint” that rendered him invulnerable to snake venom, and that the “royal” tattooing process was done naked in a room of venomous snakes.
Dampier initially toured around with Jeoly, showing his tattoos to crowds. Despite pretending to care for the “prince”, Dampier eventually sold Jeoly to the Blue Boar Inn in Fleet Street. Jeoly was displayed as a sideshow by the inn, with his likeness printed on playbills and flyers advertising his “exquisitely painted” body. By this time, Jeoly had contracted smallpox and was very ill. He was later brought to the University of Oxford for examination, but he died shortly afterwards at around thirty years of age in the summer of 1692. His tattooed skin was preserved and was displayed in the Anatomy School of Oxford for a time, although it was lost prior to the 20th century. A portrait of Omai, a tattooed Raiatean man brought back to Europe by James Cook
It is commonly held that the modern popularity of tattooing stems from Captain James Cook’s three voyages to the South Pacific in the late 18th century. Certainly, Cook’s voyages and the dissemination of the texts and images from them brought more awareness about tattooing (and, as noted above, imported the word “tattow” into Western languages). On Cook’s first voyage in 1768, his science officer and expedition botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, as well as artist Sydney Parkinson and many others of the crew, returned to England with a keen interest in with Banks writing about them extensively and Parkinson is believed to have gotten a tattoo himself in Tahiti. Banks was a highly regarded member of the English aristocracy that had acquired his position with Cook by co-financing the expedition with ten thousand pounds, a very large sum at the time. In turn, Cook brought back with him a tattooed Raiatean man, Omai, whom he presented to King George and the English Court. On subsequent voyages other crew members, from officers, such as American John Ledyard, to ordinary seamen, were tattooed.
The first documented professional tattooist in Britain was Sutherland Macdonald, who operated out of a salon in London beginning in 1894. In Britain, tattooing was still largely associated with sailors and the lower or even criminal class, but by the 1870s had become fashionable among some members of the upper classes, including royalty, and in its upmarket form it could be an expensive and sometimes painful process. A marked class division on the acceptability of the practice continued for some time in Britain. Recently, a trend has arisen marketed as ‘Stick and Poke’ tattooing; simple designs are tattooed either on oneself or by another person using ‘DIY’ kits that usually contain needles, ink, and often sample designs.
As most tattoos in the United States were done by Polynesian and Japanese amateurs, tattoo artists were in great demand in port cities all over the world, especially by European and American sailors. The first recorded professional tattoo artist in the US was a German immigrant, Martin Hildebrandt. He opened a shop in New York City in 1846 and quickly became popular during the American Civil War among soldiers and sailors of both Union and Confederate militaries.
Hildebrandt began traveling from camp to camp to tattoo soldiers, increasing his popularity and also giving birth to the tradition of getting tattoos while being an American serviceman. Soon after the Civil War, tattoos became fashionable among upper-class young adults. This trend lasted until the beginning of World War I. The invention of the electric tattoo machine caused popularity of tattoos among the wealthy to drop off. The machine made the tattooing procedure both much easier and cheaper, thus, eliminating the status symbol tattoos previously held, as they were now affordable for all socioeconomic classes. The status symbol of a tattoo shifted from a representation of wealth to a mark typically seen on rebels and criminals. Despite this change, tattoos remained popular among military servicemen, a tradition that continues today.
In 1975, there were only 40 tattoo artists in the country; in 1980, there were more than 5,000 self-proclaimed tattoo artists, appearing in response to booming popularity in the skin mural trade. Many studies have been done of the tattooed population and society’s view of tattoos. In June 2006, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology published the results of a telephone survey of 2004. It found that 36% of Americans ages 18–29, 24% of those 30–40, and 15% of those 41–51 had a tattoo. In September 2006, the Pew Research Center conducted a telephone survey that found that 36% of Americans ages 18–25, 40% of those 26–40 and 10% of those 41–64 had a tattoo. They concluded that Generation X and Millennials express themselves through their appearance, and tattoos are a popular form of self-expression. In January 2008, a survey conducted online by Harris Interactive estimated that 14% of all adults in the United States have a tattoo, slightly down from 2003, when 16% had a tattoo. Among age groups, 9% of those ages 18–24, 32% of those 25–29, 25% of those 30–39 and 12% of those 40–49 have tattoos, as do 8% of those 50–64. Men are slightly more likely to have a tattoo than women.Sailor being tattooed by fellow sailor aboard USS New Jersey in 1944
Richmond, Virginia has been cited as one of the most tattooed cities in the United States. That distinction led the Valentine Richmond History Center to create an online exhibit titled “History, Ink: The Tattoo Archive Project.” The introduction to the exhibit notes, “In the past, western culture associated tattoos with those individuals who lived on the edge of society; however, today they are recognized as a legitimate art form and widely accepted in mainstream culture.”
Since the 1970s, tattoos have become a mainstream part of Western fashion, common between both genders, among all economic classes and to age groups from the later teen years to middle age. For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. The tattoo has undergone “dramatic redefinition” and has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression.
As of 1 November 2006, Oklahoma became the last state to legalize tattooing, having banned it since 1963.
Protection papers were used by American sailors to prevent themselves from being taken off American ships and impressed into the Royal Navy. These were simple documents that described the sailor as being an American sailor. Many of the protection certificates were so general, and it was so easy to abuse the system, that many impressment officers of the Royal Navy paid no attention to them. In applying for a duplicate Seaman’s Protection Certificate in 1817, James Francis stated that he ‘had a protection granted him by the Collector of this Port on or about 12 March 1806 which was torn up and destroyed by a British Captain when at sea.’ One way of making them more specific was to describe a tattoo, which is highly personal, and thus use that description to identify the seaman. As a result, many of the later certificates carried information about tattoos and scars, as well as other specific information. This also perhaps led to an increase and proliferation of tattoos among American seamen. Frequently their ‘protection papers’ made reference to tattoos, clear evidence that individual was a seafaring man; rarely did members of the general public adorn themselves with tattoos.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, tattoos were as much about self-expression as they were about having a unique way to identify a sailor’s body should he be lost at sea or impressed by the British navy. The best source for early American tattoos is the protection papers issued following a 1796 congressional act to safeguard American seamen from impressment. These proto-passports catalogued tattoos alongside birthmarks, scars, race, and height. Using simple techniques and tools, tattoo artists in the early republic typically worked on board ships using anything available as pigments, even gunpowder and urine. Men marked their arms and hands with initials of themselves and loved ones, significant dates, symbols of the seafaring life, liberty poles, crucifixes, and other symbols.”
Because these protection papers were used to define freemen and citizenship, many black sailors and other men also used them to show that they were freemen if they were stopped by officials or slave catchers. They also called them “free papers” because they certified their non-slave status. Many of the freed blacks used descriptions of tattoos for identification purposes on their freedom papers.
Branding was used by European authorities for marking criminals throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The practice was also used by British authorities to mark army deserters and military personnel court-martialed in Australia. In nineteenth century Australia tattoos were generally the result of personal rather than official decisions but British authorities started to record tattoos along with scars and other bodily markings to describe and manage convicts assigned for transportation. The practice of tattooing appears to have been a largely non-commercial enterprise during the convict period in Australia. For example, James Ross in the Hobart Almanac of 1833 describes how the convicts on board ship commonly spent time tattooing themselves with gunpowder.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were tattoo studios in Australia but they do not appear to have been numerous. For example, the Sydney tattoo studio of Fred Harris was touted as being the only tattoo studio in Sydney between 1916 and 1943. Tattoo designs often reflected the culture of the day and in 1923 Harris’s small parlour experienced an increase in the number of women getting tattoos. Another popular trend was for women to have their legs tattooed so the designs could be seen through their stockings.
By 1937 Harris was one of Sydney’s best-known tattoo artists and was inking around 2000 tattoos a year in his shop. Sailors provided most of the canvases for his work but among the more popular tattoos in 1938 were Australian flags and kangaroos for sailors of the visiting American Fleet.
In modern day Australia a popular tattoo design is the Southern Cross motif, or variations of it.